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HRW condemns ‘inhumane’ prison conditions in Brazil

Brazilian President Michel Temer (left) has come under fire for saying the state took no responsibility for recent prison massacres. (Credit: Jeso Carneiro/Flickr)

Within the walls of Brazil’s overcrowded prisons the number of people – including children – who are tortured or treated inhumanely has reached critical levels, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its 2017 world report.

“Inhumane conditions in prisons and detention centers is an urgent problem,” HRW officials said in a statement. “More than 622,000 adults are behind bars, 67 percent more than the prisons were built to hold, according to official data.”

According to government figures cited by HRW, there were cases of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in “most, if not all” of the 17 jails and prisons it inspected between April 2015 and March 2016.

Inspectors found more than 24,000 children in juvenile detention centers, exceeding their capacity by almost 24 percent. And it could get worse: Lawmakers are considering a bill that would increase the maximum detention period, placing even more demand on overcrowded facilities.

According to HRW the understaffed and overcrowded prisons are breeding grounds for abuse. Prison authorities are unable to control their facilities, and detainees are vulnerable to violence and gang activity.

The report comes on the heels of reports that drug gangs carried out massacres over several days beginning on Jan. 1 that left 100 inmates dead. President Michel Temer was silent on the incident for days, the New York Times reported. When made a statement, he called the killings a “terrible accident” and said the state bore no clear responsibility for the private-run prisons where the killings occurred.

“The government treated this tragedy as if it was unforeseen,” HRW Brazil Director Maria Laura Canineu told the New York Times. “This is absurd.”

After facing criticism for his slow reaction, Temer released a statement just a few days later and said he “deplores” the latest killings. According to Agence France-Presse, he also announced that the federal government would spend $250 million to build at least one new prison in each of Brazil’s 26 states.

The head of the jail where 56 inmates were killed on Jan. 1 was fired after corruptions allegations surfaced in the aftermath of the massacre. According to state-run media agency Agencia Brasil, Jose Carvalho da Silva was removed from office Tuesday after two inmates alleged that prison officials facilitated the escape of prisoners, and received money from criminal gangs to allow the entry of weapons, drugs and cell phones into the jail.

Brazil has the world’s fourth highest rate of incarceration, according to Insight Crime. The country’s incarceration rate is growing 10 times faster than its population growth, with the prison population predicted to rise from the current 600,000 to 1.9 million by 2030 if current rates persist.

The HRW report did note that expanded use of custody hearings has made a positive impact on the justice system. These hearings occur immediately after a person is arrested to help judges determine whether to detain him or set him free pending trial. HRW urged Congress to pass a proposed bill that would make custody hearings mandatory countywide.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at